Eau Courant: Water Stewardship In Apparel and Textiles

Posted on August, 26 2022

Part I: Water and the industry's value chain
The apparel, footwear, and textiles industry has made some headway on sustainability in the past few years, stepping up target setting and collaboration around chemicals, climate, supply chain reporting and driving toward more sustainable materials.

Nevertheless, one major impact area still remains relatively neglected by the industry: water.

WWF believes that now is the time for the apparel and textiles industry to step up and embrace its vital role in transforming the water management and governance in many of the key production regions – many of which are located in some of the world’s highest water risk regions, such as Southeast Asia. 

This report is the first in a series of apparel and textile industry reports. Through these reports, WWF is seeking to harness industry data from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) Higg, the Open Apparel Registry (OAR) Database and other sources, to analyse the industry’s biggest impacts on water, the geographical sourcing regions facing the most risk around water, and lay out a long-term vision for how the apparel and textiles industry can transform itself and others through taking a water stewardship approach.

Part I (this report) explores the touchpoints of water along the industry’s value chain, while Part II will unpack water risk and opportunity for key apparel clusters. Lastly, in Part III, we will lay out WWF’s vision on water and our water stewardship program within the apparel and textiles sector.
From the outset, it is important to note that WWF recognizes that there are good efforts underway on water. Industry initiatives like the SAC, Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), the CEO Water Mandate, and Textile Exchange (TE) all have strong content related to water management – for example, SAC’s Higg Index Facility Environment Module’s questions on water management are helping to create an industry-wide water reporting for factories, while ZDHC’s focus on eliminating toxic chemicals from supply chains means that the industry possesses a de-facto wastewater standard for dye-houses and other high impact sites.

Similarly, the industry is showing signs of recognizing the key role of its value chain as evidenced in the rise of the OAR. However, it is our belief that these activities still only scratch the surface of the industry’s full impact and dependence on water globally.

Indeed, perhaps the best example of the blindspot on water comes through its current absence in the G7 Fashion Pact, which currently only focuses on climate, biodiversity, and oceans, with water being conspicuously absent to date.  
WWF works extensively with many apparel and textile brands. Our efforts with many of the industry’s more sustainable brands, have continued to evolve over the years, working to measure and reduce water use and wastewater impacts with brand’s tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers, along with select commitments related to various fibre sourcing.

"To date, we have mapped water intensive processes in tiers one and two of our supply chain, but we know that our business has wider-reaching impacts," said Sharif Hoque, Impact Lead - Water, H&M Group, which produced this first report along with WWF.

"Adopting a water stewardship approach has moved us to act beyond our supply chain. It’s helped us to see water through the eyes of others and appreciate its true value. In addition, we’ve discovered innovative solutions that we could never have created alone. On top of working with external partners, we are also making changes to how we tackle water issues within our own operations, right from the design stage through to how we reuse and recycle products," added Hoque.

This is a good starting point, but there are two issues to note: (1) these companies represent many of the leading actors, not the mainstream, and (2) even with leaders, there remains a need to push further into the value chain, into mills not yet mapped by companies, into outsourced wet processing and laundry units, and, in particular more deeply into the specific locations of raw material sourcing.

"We are currently working with WWF to explore how we can analyse the full value chain, including fibre production and the customer use phase. We welcome this report and believe it will help our industry gain a better appreciation of the breadth and depth of its impact," said Hoque.

In particulr, the apparel and textiles industry has only just begun to take on board many of the complexities of water:  its multi-aspect, local, contextual, seasonal,  time-bound nature. Very few companies have a strong understanding of the wider hydrological landscape and the roles of other water users, regulators and the environment in finding meaningful solutions.

Likewise, the sector has yet to fully embrace how water, and the stories that it brings, can also be a source of opportunity, brand enhancement and revenue growth.

"It is our hope that these reports can further drive the industry forward to embrace water stewardship. The analysis and the resulting transformational vision aims not to critique, but to support companies and help them to join collective efforts in key production regions," said Alexis Morgan, WWG Global Water Stewardship Lead. "Only by working together can we collectively tackle the shared water challenges that will ultimately benefit people, planet and business."

"No matter what your size or experience, these reports from WWF will build your understanding and help you get started," concluded Hoque. "At H&M Group, we call our work on water ‘a journey’ and invite everybody to join us."
Textile factory improving sustainability through water stewardship
© Justin Jin / WWF-US
Employee at a company that is part of the Better Cotton initiative
© Asim Hafeez / WWF-UK
A waste water treatment plant
© Sun Xiaodong